The Top 16 Swimming Stories of 2016

To see all of our 2016 Swammy Awards presented by TYR, click here

The New Year is upon us! So we at SwimSwam are wrapping up our 2016 Swammy Awards with a look back at the 16 biggest stories of the year 2016.

Bear in mind: these aren’t necessarily our favorite stories. Some were downright painful to cover. They’re not the most positive stories, or the most inspirational, or the most controversial. They’re the 10 stories that most dominated the news landscape over the past 12 months.

In the same way, this isn’t a recounting of specific meets or swims – you can find something like that in our Swammy Awards. These stories spanned multiple stories and multiple news cycles, some of them dominating the sport for almost the entire year.

16. Ledecky Begins College Career

In the era of Michael Phelpsfans had to wait for summer season and international meets to see the world’s best swimmer compete. But lately, the top American women have graced the college ranks, and this season was no different. Katie Ledeckythe most dominant distance swimmer in history, started her freshman year with the Stanford Cardinal. And we didn’t have to wait long for the fireworks to start, as Ledecky broke three NCAA records within her first 3 months at the Farm.

15. Missy Franklin Struggles

News isn’t always positive. One of the biggest overarching stories in this Olympic year was the struggle of Missy Franklinthe Olympic hero in 2012 and best female swimmer on the planet in 2013. Franklin had a relatively quiet first season as a pro, returning home to Colorado but only making the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 back and 200 free. She bowed out in semifinals of both events in Rio, but did earn gold as a prelims swimmer on the 4×200 free relay.

14. The Finger Wag Heard ‘Round the World

One of two major trash-talking rivalries that heated up around Rio included American breaststroker Lilly King and Russian breaststroker Yulia EfimovaEfimova shifted in and out of Olympic eligibility after a failed doping test (hint: you might read more about that later in this list) but ultimately swam in Rio. King made her disagreement with that fact very clear, most notably wagging her finger at Efimova through a TV during qualifying runs of the 100 breast. King would win the 100 breast, but Efimova earned silvers in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes.

13. The Phelps Baby

It wasn’t an earth-shattering expose, but it did captivate swim fans around the world to see Olympic icon Michael Phelps show his human side in the lead-up and aftermath of the birth of his first son, Boomer. Long swimming’s most recognizable icon, Phelps was known to fans for his work in the pool and very seldom for his personality out of it. In fact, prior to this year, most of Phelps’ out-of-pool news was troublesome. But when Phelps became a father, the world got to see a new side to the greatest swimmer of all-time – a decidedly positive one for a swimmer who finally appears truly happy in and out of the water.

12. Mack vs Sun

The other big Rio rivalry was in the distance races, with Australian Mack Horton and China’s Sun YangBut this one reportedly passed beyond mere words. Reports out of Rio indicated the two had some sort of altercation in a warm-down pool, and Horton also challenged Sun about a doping suspension Sun served back in 2014. Once again, both swimmers found success outside of their feud: Horton touched out Sun for gold in the 400 free, but Sun won the 200 free gold.

11. Stanford Relay DQ Decides NCAA Title

Even pre-Katie Ledecky, Stanford had been building a recruiting empire. With loads of talent arriving to the Farm, 2016 looked like it could be the first year of a multi-year Stanford run at the top of the women’s NCAA. But a day 2 disqualification in the 200 free relay took away an NCAA event title from the team and also set the Cardinal back 40 points. When the dust settled, Georgia took home the team title – by just 19 overall points. It’s not often a DQ affects the outcome of a national title – in this case, one DQ accounted for not one, but two NCAA crowns (the relay win and the team title).

10. Princeton Suspends Swim & Dive Program

A latecomer to this list: just a few weeks ago, Princeton University announced it would be suspending it’s men’s swimming & diving team for the entire season. The university reportedly discovered “vulgar,” “offensive,” “racist,” and “misogynistic” material on the team’s university-sponsored listserv, essentially a group email chain. The news set off debates among readers over the appropriateness of the punishment, the severity of the alleged inappropriate material and the conduct of athletes competing at the sport’s highest levels. This story is far from over, as the team’s suspension should have major impacts on the Ivy League and NCAA landscapes moving forward.

9. Currents in Rio pool?

Data-savvy swim fans stumbled on a theory about the fairness of the Rio Olympic pool, suggesting that a current may have affected swimming in certain lanes. Barry Revzin provided videos of their current tests,published his analysis of the subject on SwimSwam shortly after the Olympics, setting off a big discussion about pool fairness, currents and swimming facilities. The designers of the Olympic pool disagreed with the allegations, and which used buoys to check for water movement within the pool. The ensuing fan discussions pulled at one of swimming’s more interesting facility issues and led to some retroactive analysis of other major swimming events from years past.

8. Joe Bernal Banned

Hall of Fame swim coach Joe Bernal was added to USA Swimming’s banned list in April. Not only did the story of his suspension have the usual reader arguments associated with sexual abuse claims and coaching bans, it also forced a number of high-profile institutions to make decisions about how to handle honored members who were later charged with major violations. Fordham University removed Bernal from its Hall of Fame, while the ASCA had to wait for a fall meeting to create a policy on how to handle similar situations in the future. Bernal was eventually removed from the ASCA Hall of Fame, while a policy is still in the works.

7. Lochte Rio BathroomGate

It started as a strange sidecar story to the Rio Olympics and eventually ballooned into a full-on side circus. American Olympian Ryan Lochte at first claimed he was robbed at gunpoint late one night in Rio. Eventually, evidence started to suggest that Lochte and three other American swimmers were asked to pay for damages they caused at a bathroom in Brazil. Lochte eventually apologized for exaggerating the story even as Brazilian authorities tried to charge him with reporting a false crime. Security camera footage leaked showing Lochte, Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger outside of a gas station bathroom, and Lochte was accused of damaging a sign outside the gas station. The story still hasn’t become fully clear. Some allege the four vandalized the bathroom and were asked to pay for it. Other suggest the four were extorted for more money than necessary to cover the broken sign. Some accounts include armed security guards; some suggest guns were pointed at the swimmers. Some allege massive damage to the bathroom; others claim only a metal sign was knocked down.

Wherever the truth actually lies, the incident led to Conger and Bentz being pulled off of their aircraft at the last minute to testify as witnesses in the case. Lochte made it out of Brazil before the wheels really started turning, but Feigen was detained and forced to make a $10,800 donation to a Brazilian institution before he could leave the country. It also caused the USOC and USA Swimming to suspend Lochte for 10 months and disqualify him from the 2017 World Championships team and suspend Conger, Bentz and Feigen for 4 months.

6. Ervin Wins 2nd 50 free Gold 16 Years Later

On a more positive note was the story of Anthony Ervinwho spent the year fighting for his second Olympic berth post-retirement. After making the Rio team in the 50 free, Ervin accomplished something extremely impressive – 16 years after winning his first Olympic gold medal in the 50 free, Ervin did it again. The 35-year-old topped a stellar splash and dash field for gold, beating France’s Florent Manaudou (almost a decade Ervin’s junior) by just .01.

5. Brock Turner Sexual Assault Trial

Former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was first arrested on sexual assault charges back in January of 2015, but his story became one of the biggest in 2016 due to his trial, sentence and incarceration. Though the story was a big one around SwimSwam’s readership from the initial arrest, the news exploded in mid-2016 when Turner was convicted of sexual assault and then sentenced to 6 months in jail. Critics blasted the sentence as overly-lenient, and the sentiment caught fire over social media. Statements from the sexual assault victim and Turner’s father stoked the fire, and a new wave of criticism erupted when Turner was released after just 3 months in jail. A story about a very sensitive and troubling issue that hits very personally for a large number of readers, the Turner sexual assault trial was among the most-discussed events of the year.

4. Russian Swimmers In, Then Out, Then In for Rio Olympics

Another issue with a hotbed of opinions, this story ties closely with another story farther down this list. Russian athletes were at first rumored to be banned from the Rio Olympics after allegations of a massive state-sponsored doping program within the country for at least the 2014 Winter Olympics. Eventually, only a short list of Russian athletes were banned, though those athletes could challenge their bans with various courts. The main swimmers affected were former world champs Yulia Efimova, Vladimir Morozov and Nikita LobintsevThe three were at first ruled out, then ruled back in, then ruled out… their status remained hazy right up until the week of the Olympics, but all three were allowed to swim. Efimova won two silver medals.

3. Simone Manuel Becomes First Black Woman To Win Olympic Swimming Gold

Maybe the most shocking race of the 2016 Olympics was the women’s 100 free, where two youngsters (American Simone Manuel and Canadian Penny Oleksiak) tied for gold with the world record-holder and heavy favorite faltering to outside the medals. But broader than just swimming, the race signaled a major step forward for American swimming and international swimming in the area of race, with Manuel becoming both the first African-American woman and the first black woman to win Olympic swimming gold. Manuel herself paid homage to previous black swimming medalists after the race. The first black swimmer to win an Olympic medal was Enith Brigitha in 1976. The first to win gold was Anthony Nesty in 1988. The first African American woman to win a medal in swimming was Maritza Correiajust 12 years ago in 2004. Manuel became just the third-ever African American swimmer to win gold, joining Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones.

2. Michael Phelps Farewell Tour

The overarching story of the entire year was Michael Phelpsmaking his last bid for Olympic medals. Phelps – who vows that 2016 was his last Olympics – made a historic run at age 31, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in the 100 fly, 200 fly and 200 IM. Phelps ultimately led all male swimmers with 5 gold and a silver medal in Rio, helping the U.S. sweep the relays after a rough relay outing for the team in 2015. Phelps also became the first man to four-peat as Olympic champ in the same event, winning the 200 IM in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. More than that, Phelps’ farewell tour was about swimming fans getting to watch the man they’d cheered on for the better part of two decades close his career as a mature, content and truly happy man. Newly-married and fresh into fatherhood, Phelps opened up more in 2016 than he ever had before, admitting his struggles during his years of swimming dominance and sharing his journey into happiness while leaving behind the sport he’s defined for so many years.

1. McLaren Reports

If there was one story consistently at the forefront of 2016 in sports, it was doping. In some ways, 2016 and the preceeding few years were to swimming what the mid-2000s “steroid era” was to baseball. High-profile swimmers tested positive – world champs, Olympic gold medalists, world record-holders. But the tinder that set off the doping discussion in 2016 were the two reports from Canadian law professor Richard McLarenDubbed the “McLaren Reports,” the reports investigated allegations of a massive, state-sponsored doping program within the nation of Russia. Originally, the investigation centered on athletics (track & field), but as more information was revealed, all sports were called into question. McLaren’s investigation alleged that Russia was swapping out and tampering with samples in the Moscow Anti-Doping lab, potentially to help specific high-achieving athletes avoid positive doping tests. The investigations led to a number of Russian athletes being banned from the Rio Olympics and all Russian Paralympians being banned from the Rio Paralympics.

The McLaren Reports were tangentially related to a huge wave of WADA anti-doping labs losing their accreditation over the year, with only some earning it back as of December. Even during the Olympics, the cloud of doping hovered, with almost every great performance being scrutinized and a number of Russian athletes being loudly booed before each race.

Just this week, Russian officials admitted that the allegations in the McLaren Reports were true, and that the nation had been running a complex, widespread operation to help athletes avoid doping bans.

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7 years ago

I like the Finger Wag story because it wasn’t just business, it was personal.

Lliy King swam a stunning 1:04.9 to win, and she powered home the last few strokes. She wanted that Gold Medal!

After winning, she spat some water and flailed around before hugging her USA teammate. Yulia wore a look of anguish and exhaustion.

Not as dramatic as Tonya vs. Nancy, but still a real Grudge Match.

Reply to  marklewis
7 years ago

Aggro girl athletes tend to have problems down the track . Men are able to shake hands & go have a beer without rancour .

wet book
Reply to  G.I.N.A
7 years ago

Wishful thinking

7 years ago

Brock turner should not be on this list especially leading up to and after the Olympics.

Attila the Hunt
7 years ago

If Simone Manuel becoming first black woman ever to win Olympics gold is ranked that high in the top stories, why no mention about Joe Schooling’s first Singaporean ever to win Olympics gold, not only in swimming but in all sports? And not only that, he broke Crocker’s legendary textile WR.

I’d bet there are more African American women who actively train in swimming than there are Singaporeans, men or women.

Attila the Hunt
Reply to  Jared Anderson
7 years ago

I don’t disagree that Manuel’s win deserve a place in the top stories.
But Schooling’s win is also an equally compelling story. His win changed the whole nation. He also became by far the richest ever still eligible NCAA swimmer through his win. His total prize money forced NCAA to modify their policies regarding maximum prize money. CMIIW, but he is also the first swimmer from the whole South East Asia countries (population more than 620 millions) to have won Olympics swimming medal since a Philippino summer won 200 breast bronze on 1932 Olympics.
Schooling’s win is already inspiring countless swimmers from South East Asian countries that they too can succeed at the highest level of swimming competition.… Read more »

Reply to  Attila the Hunt
7 years ago

I must say that I get tired of our habit of always categorizing US athletes by race. Simone Manuel was the first American female swimmer to win gold in the 100 at the Olympics since 1984, that is a very major achievement. She has great strokes, a winning personality, and yes, she happens to be black. She is an example to all female age-group sprinters who look up for inspiration and a model.

Reply to  Attila the Hunt
7 years ago

Schooling has been in America for most of his swimming development years. He is for the most part an American swimmer who swims at Texas.

Attila the Hunt
Reply to  Swimmer
7 years ago

So? Simone Manuel had been an American all her life, and has been training and swimming in USA all her life. Her family are above average Americans, she receives full scholarship from one of the top ten Universities in the world and was able to take one year off college to focus on training for the Olympics.

Tell me, what sort of disadvantage that Manuel had to overcome compared to Schooling?
Even physically, Schooling is at much disadvantaged compared to Manuel.

I don’t want to turn this into Manuel vs. Schooling, but I just don’t get the logic behind the selection and non-selection of some of the stories.

wet book
Reply to  Attila the Hunt
7 years ago

Right, and Mack Horton was the first male Australian gold medalist in an event between 300 and 500 m who was over 6’2″ and had two “o”s in his last name. Why isn’t that promoted? I think you’re missing the point, or are being intentionally tone deaf to issues of representation in many sectors (eg, a slew of sports) of American life.

Attila the Hunt
7 years ago

This list is TOP swimming stories, not BEST swimming stories.
No one outside avid swimming followers in USA knows much about Dorado, if at all.

7 years ago

Quick question: what would everyone say the biggest upset in Rio was? There were so many surprising swims I have no idea which one I’d pick. Maybe Manuel and Oleksiak in the 100 just because of who else was in the field.

Attila the Hunt
Reply to  Person
7 years ago

Not sure about most surprising swims, but Manuel and Oleksiak’s 100 gold is definitely the most surprising outcome in Rio.

Another Swim Nerd
Reply to  Attila the Hunt
7 years ago

On a side note, Peaty’s 100 makes you wonder what he could do in a 200. Even with lackluster endurance, I don’t see him being any slower than 2:07 high/2:08 low. And with some training he could complete a sweep of the breaststroke WRs.

Attila the Hunt
Reply to  Person
7 years ago

For most surprising swims, I’d say Peaty’s outrageous WR and his relay split take the top honor.
Hosszu’s 4:26 is second, followed very closely by Ledecky’s 3:56 and 8:04.

Dont get me wrong, most of us had predicted those swimmers were more than likely break WR in Rio (Hosszu, less so, considering Shiwen’s unbelievable splits), but the scale and winning percentages of their WR-swims were simply breathtaking.

Reply to  Person
7 years ago

Probably Chalmers gold and overall the bad performance by Australian team (they arrived in Rio with at least 6-7 best time and win only 3 gold).

Reply to  Person
7 years ago

IMO, Manuel and Olesiak tieing for gold and denying the Campbell sisters who until the 100m finals seemed poised to win was the biggest surprise. Ervin wasn’t as surprising, he had great moments and we knew if he put together a perfect race he could win. Schooling has a great year and was the favorite for the 100fly. Peaty was also the favorite for the 100m breaststroke. Olesiak had been improving through heats and semis, and was expected to medal behind Cate. But I never would have predicted Care fading that badly.

7 years ago

Peaty’ sheer dominance and the emergence of Ryan Murphy are bigger than some of these

Attila the Hunt
Reply to  Pvdh
7 years ago

This list is TOP stories, and not BEST stories.

7 years ago

Two of the best stories were Katie’s medals a d Maya DiRado’s win.

Reply to  Greg
7 years ago

The most exciting day was the day 7 that deserves the most exciting story: 200back(Maya DiRado), followed by superiority of Joseph Schooling and three way tie for the second place at 100 fly, followed by 8:04 at 800 by Katie Ledecky, followed by the win of Anthony Ervin at 50 free.

Steve Nolan
7 years ago


Could have given me a billion dollars and I would not have remembered it was called “The McLaren Report.” (Mostly b/c I tooooootally don’t care about the ‘roids.)

If anything, the biggest thing to come out of the biggole Russian doping scandal is the implications it puts on OTHER countries, not only Russia. It’s highly likely a buncha Russian athletes were doping, but they weren’t really on that many podiums. So should we assume most of those athletes ahead of ’em were doping, too?

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About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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